The dog was old, arthritic and fat, and she belonged to my live-in girlfriend, Leah, who’d had her for eight years before we met. The dog’s name was Bidderbells (don’t ask) and you couldn’t really leave her at home for long stretches because of her tendency to chew up the cushions on the couch, or at least gum them, and then take a dump on the kitchen floor. So I had her with me the day I brought my laptop to the library to work in peace (they’re renovating the building across the street from the apartment and the noise is multidimensional) and, of course, I couldn’t park on the street because the sun would make a furnace of the car. I got lucky at the parking garage. Just as I took my ticket and the gate lifted I spotted an SUV backing out of a prime space on the left-hand side and I eased right in, feeling good about myself and the little unexpected rewards of life. I cracked the windows, gave the dog a rawhide bone to gum and walked down the ramp and out into the sunshine.
The library is one of my favorite buildings in town, a limestone monument to culture and learning built in a time when people cared about such things. Of course, it’s principally a repository of bums these days, men mostly, who crowd the armchairs and big oak tables with their oozing bags of possessions and idle away the hours bringing up porn sites on the computers, scribbling in their journals or snoozing with their heads thrown back and their mouths hanging open. Not that I’m complaining. They’ve got a right to live too and we’ve got a lot of bleeding hearts in this town (read: bum advocates) and though I’m not really one of them I guess you’d have to say I’m tolerant, at least.
At any rate, I worked for maybe an hour and a half, then packed up and headed back out into the sun for the stroll across the street to the parking structure. Was I thinking I was about to be violated? No. I was thinking nothing—or just, I suppose, that it was a nice day, it was time for lunch and the world was an equable place.
The car wasn’t there. I walked directly to the spot where I’d left it and found a motorcycle parked there instead. The motorcycle was a handsome thing, a chopper actually, with high handlebars and a dragon decal on the fuel tank, but it wasn’t my car and I was at least 99 percent sure that this was where I’d parked. Now I began to exercise my neck, looking up and down the row of parked vehicles, wondering if I was somehow mistaken, if my internal compass had confused this trip to the library with the last and that it was on the last visit I’d parked here and today elsewhere. Like up there at the top of the ramp. I started walking up the gradual incline, scanning the vehicles on both sides, and when I got to the point where the ramp gave on to the second floor of the garage, I went back down again, rechecking every spot. Still no car. So back up the ramp I went, turning the corner to level two, and I checked every space there as well before continuing on to ascend all the levels, including the sixth and top floor, which was outside in the glare of the sun and no possibility at all because I was certain I would never have parked there with the dog in the car, not on this day or any other.
I didn’t really know how much time dribbled away in this wasted effort, this idiotic obsessive-compulsive tramping through the entire parking structure, checking and rechecking the same cars over and over as if one of them would magically morph into mine. Half an hour? More? And wasn’t this the definition of true idiocy, repeating the same behavior and expecting a different result? It was at this point that I realized the car must have been towed—and yet why I couldn’t imagine, since this wasn’t metered parking and the gate wouldn’t have admitted me in the first place if I hadn’t taken a ticket. Suddenly I was in a hurry, thinking of what this was going to cost me—and of the dog, of course, who at the very least would have been confused if not disturbed or even frightened by the clanking of the tow truck and the unnatural elevation of the car—and I was practically jogging as I descended through the levels and made my way back down to the exit. Here was a sharp curve and a narrow lane that led from the mouth of the parking structure to a kiosk and gate, and I found myself squeezed between the unforgiving concrete pillars on the one side and the autos backed up at the ticket kiosk, feeling awkward and vulnerable on foot in the domain of big-grid tires and steel.
The ticket taker was a high school kid in a hoodie who looked startled when I popped my head in the door. In his idle moments he’d been underlining passages in a creased paperback of Crime and Punishment, which lay on the scratched tin counter before him. I was beginning, deep in that place of flap and panic in the center of my chest, to see a theme revealed here. “Did you guys tow any cars today?” I asked him hopefully, and I must have looked confused or disoriented, like one of the bums he no doubt had to negotiate at regular intervals.
There was the screech of tires somewhere above and behind us. A sweetish smell of exhaust hung in the air. He gave me a wary look. “We don’t tow cars out of here,” he said. “Unless they’re like left for a week or something.…”
“No, no,” I said. “I just parked two hours ago”—I flipped my wrist to consult my watch—“at 10 past 10 or so.”
He was shaking his head so that the flaps of the hoodie generated their own little breeze. “I’ve been on since eight and I definitely haven’t seen any tow trucks.”
That gave me pause. I looked off across the street to the courthouse and saw the way the sun drew radiant lines across the limestone blocks a previous generation had stacked there in defiance of time, temblors and the depredations of weather. Then I brought my gaze back to the kiosk, to which a shining white Lexus was just pulling up. The driver of the Lexus, a faux blonde with a reconstructed face, gave me a look, then handed the ticket to the kid in the hoodie, and I stood there observing the gate rise and listening to their parting remarks (“Have a nice day now”; “You too”), feeling helpless and embarrassed.
“That’s a camera there, right?” I said after the Lexus had wheeled off down the street.
The kid looked to where I was pointing, just to his right and above his head. “Yeah, I guess,” he said.
“So, if anybody”—and here the word caught in my throat for just a moment—“stole my car, you’d have it on film, right?”
UNRAVELING THE MYSTERY
The kid called his supervisor, a lean, gum-chewing athlete in his 40s with a little pencil mustache and a name tag affixed to his sports coat that read GREG. Greg shook my hand and asked, “What seems to be the problem?”
“I think somebody stole my car.”
“You parked it here?”
I said yes.
“You’re sure? Absolutely sure?” Greg had been through this before, you could see that. And you could see that in 90 percent of the cases it turned out that people had parked on the street or in another lot or had simply walked right by their own vehicle without recognizing it because people got confused, especially if they’d been in the library, focused on a page or computer screen and not on the real and actual.
I nodded. A slow pounding had started up in my chest and quickly migrated to my head, where it began to beat like a big bass drum. “And my dog was in the car,” I said. “My girlfriend’s dog, I mean.” Here a vision of Leah rose before me, Leah when she was perplexed by the spill of coffee grounds leading across the kitchen floor from the counter to the trash or upset over something she’d heard on the radio, her brow contorted and her eyes coiled and ready to strike. How was I going to break the news to her?
“Make and year?” Greg’s gaze never left my face. He was trying to get a read on me and I didn’t blame him for that. I could only imagine the sort of nutcases he had to deal with on a daily basis.
“Crown Victoria, 2003. Blue. Dark blue, that is. Almost looks black, depending on the light?” The car had belonged to my mother and it had come my way when she passed on last year. It was a bit of a gas hog, but it was in prime condition because she’d hardly ever driven it and it had less than 30,000 miles on it. When we went on trips—up to Oregon to visit Leah’s sister or to Vegas for R&R—we took Leah’s Honda to save on gas.
Greg gave me a smile that stretched his mustache to the breaking point. “Let’s go have a look,” he said.
So I spent the next half hour tramping back through the parking structure, this time with Greg at my side. “I’ll be your point man,” he said, and we started off up the ramp on the first level, Greg keeping up a stream of chatter the whole time though the drum was beating ever louder in my brain. I heard him as if at a great distance, the ramp swaying under us as cars labored on by. He filled me in on the problems of running a public parking structure, the fistfights over spots when there was a big event going on, the graffiti, the vomit, the sex in the stairwells and the bums making their nests in cars people had foolishly left unlocked. Anytime we came to a car of any make that happened to be blue or black, he pulled up short and asked, “This it?” But of course it never was.
“All right,” he said finally, “let’s have a look at that tape and see if we can find out what happened to your vehicle.”
THE PERPETRATOR’S SLEEVE
I don’t have any tattoos, though Leah has a blue and gold butterfly just under the crease of her right buttock so that it seems to flutter when she’s walking ahead of you on the beach in her bikini. I mention it because the perpetrator—the thief—was a tattoo junkie and it was his sleeve that gave him away.
Greg and I went back to his office, which turned out to be a room not much bigger than the ticket kiosk located on the lower level of the parking structure, and waited for his “tech person” to come across town from one of the other garages to extract the feed from the camera and play it for us. “Fifteen minutes,” Greg said. “Twenty at most.” Then he looked into his computer and I pulled out my laptop, though I couldn’t concentrate and wound up staring at the wall above Greg’s desk for the hour and a quarter it took the tech person, another high schooler, to arrive. (And that was frustrating because the thief had obviously stolen the car in a narrow window of time and the sooner we got the cops on it the sooner the situation would be resolved, the car restored and Bidderbells returned to me. And Leah. Who was at work and as yet didn’t know a thing about it.)
The high schooler, who actually turned out to be a university student, played the feed for us on Greg’s monitor, all three of us leaning in to watch the kid in the hoodie jump and dance and sit and spring up again as we fast-forwarded through the morning’s transactions till finally I shouted out, “There! There it is!”
My car had entered the scene, a grainy presence, sleek and substantial, and here was the window rolling down and the shadow of the dog in the backseat, pressing her nose to the glass there. The kid in the hoodie held out his hand and the thief snaked out an arm with my ticket in it, only to retract it again until the amount showed on the kiosk’s display—$1.50, first 75 minutes free, $1.50 for each hour after that—which meant that the car had been broken into, hot-wired and driven to the exit just minutes before I emerged from the library, minutes! What was I feeling? Anger and regret in equal parts. If only I’d been there I could have stopped him before he’d even got started, the son of a bitch, but the problem was he was a son of a bitch without a face—or at least we couldn’t see his face given the perspective of the camera and the shadows inside the car resulting from the angle of the sun at that hour. All we could see was his sleeve—the tattoos he wore on his left arm, dark solid blocks of color like a grid of railroad ties running from his wrist to his biceps. Then the money was exchanged, the gate rose, and my car was gone.
Two hours later Officer Mortenson pulled up in front of the parking structure in a Crown Victoria very much like the one that had been stolen from me, with the exception that hers—a newer model—carried a roof rack of flashing lights and bore the San Roque city logo on both front doors, with POLICE emblazoned beneath it in block letters. I was sitting on the low concrete wall outside the library in the company of half a dozen bums and watched her pull up opposite the kiosk and park along the curb in the NO PARKING ANYTIME zone, at which point I rose and hurried across the pavement to where she was just emerging from the car. “Hi,” I said, tense still but feeling just the smallest relief of the pressure that had been building in me over the course of the past two hours. Here she was, the servant of the law, ready to put things to rights.
Unfortunately, I seemed to have taken her by surprise, approaching the car too eagerly, I suppose, so that as the greeting emerged from my mouth she was in the act of squaring her shoulders and adjusting her duty belt, her fingers running familiarly over the service revolver, the nightstick, mace and handcuffs, and she swung round on me so precipitously you would have thought I was the perpetrator. Or a perpetrator. A perpetrator in potentia.
So there we were. The sun beat at the back of my head. I tried for a smile but couldn’t quite manage it—I was that wrought up. Nor did it help that I towered over her, my six-three to her five-five or -six. Add to that that she looked too young to be a cop and maybe a bit heavier than the ideal, which made me think of the junk food she must have been forced to bolt down during her busy rounds taking statements from agitated citizens whose safe, secure little worlds had just been cracked open like so many walnuts.
She surprised me then by coming up with the smile I couldn’t manage and a soft sympathetic gaze out of eyes the color of the caramel chews Leah likes in lieu of dessert every once in a while. “You’re the one whose car’s missing?” she asked. “Yes,” I said, and in the next moment it was all pouring out of me in a rush of verbiage, every detail I could think of, from the car’s description and license plate number to where I’d parked and how I’d spent my morning and the salient—and most corrosive—fact that Bidderbells was in the backseat and for all I knew being held hostage.
She heard me out, but she wasn’t writing anything on her pad beyond the make, model and plate number. When I’d run out of breath, she said, “Let’s back up a minute here. Name?” she asked. “And I’m going to need an address and a number where you can be reached.”
Once she’d recorded the information, she straightened up and swept a look round the area, scanning the faces of the bums, to whom this was all in a morning’s entertainment, and then she turned back to me. “Well,” she said, “let’s have a look at that video feed, shall we?”
We were in stride now, heading into the shadow of the parking structure, when another thought came to me. “It’s not just the car. And the dog. I just remembered my golf clubs are in the trunk. And my fishing equipment. Which includes my fly rod? That my grandfather gave me? I mean, it’s handmade Calcutta split bamboo and pretty much irreplaceable.”
She gave me a sidelong glance and I shortened my stride to stay even with her. “You say he has tattoos?”
In the agitation of the moment I thought she was talking about my grandfather, but then I saw my mistake and nodded.
“Don’t you worry,” she said, “we’ll get your car back and your dog and your golf clubs too. My bet? He’s got a rap sheet, which means those tats are going to give him away.”
I wanted to thank her, wanted to thank her extravagantly and tell her I was feeling much better and that I appreciated her help in resolving this matter as expeditiously as possible, but all I could think of was Leah and the dog and what would happen if Officer Mortenson was wrong. Or maybe overconfident. Maybe that was a better word.
THE BLAME GAME
One thing I like to do in the late afternoon once I’m done with work (I consult for a couple of the big wine-growing operations on the Central Coast) is pour a glass of wine, put on some music and wait for Leah to get home so we can decide what to do about dinner. Half the time we wind up going out. We’re not foodies per se, but there are a whole lot of fine restaurants in this little tourist enclave by the sea, and our choices are virtually limitless. Plus, our two favorite places are an easy walk from the apartment. On this particular afternoon, the afternoon of the theft of the car and abduction of the dog (whether planned or incidental), I got back late, having declined an offer of a lift from Officer Mortenson only to wind up walking the 20 blocks home. Every step of the way I’d been thinking about Leah—her look of shattered disbelief when she found out, the tragic extenuation in the way she would freeze her lips and pinball her eyes, her uncanny ability to hurtle from shock to sorrow to accusation and play the blame game—and if I’d already put away half a bottle of an ambrosial Santa Rita Hills pinot by the time she came in the door, who could blame me? It had been a day. And it was far from over.
About Leah: She’s 37, a year older than I, and she works for a sometimes intemperate older woman named Marjorie Biletnikoff, who has her own interior design business here in town. Most days are placid, meeting with clients, choosing fabrics, carpets, antiques, that sort of thing, but every once in a while—once a week, it seems—things can get inordinately stressful because Marjorie Biletnikoff goes off the wagon in a major way (if she ever even bothered to climb up on it in the first place) and tends to take her frustrations in life out on Leah. Maybe I’m imagining things, but from the moment I heard Leah’s key turn in the lock I thought I could detect the sort of forward thrust and abrupt wrist action that would indicate that today was one of those days.
The door yawned open, slammed shut, and here came Leah down the entrance hall and straight into the kitchen, where I was standing at the counter, cradling my wineglass. She didn’t say hi and I didn’t either and there was no pecking of kisses or embraces or anything usual because as soon as she came through the door I said, “Something happened,” and she said, “You’re drunk,” and I was on the defensive. Finally, when I got the news out that the car had been stolen from the parking structure at the library, she softened and murmured, “Oh, James, that’s awful,” even as she went to the cabinet to reach down a wineglass for herself. “You must feel terrible.”
“Yeah,” I said, shifting my gaze, “but that’s not all.”
She’d swung around, glass in hand, and had lifted the bottle by its neck before she paused, her eyes boring into me.
“They got Bidderbells,” I said. “I mean, she was in the car. They probably didn’t even know. And the police, I went to the police, and they said they—”
“What are you telling me? You took my dog? To the library? Left her in the car? And you, you—you lost her?” Implicit in this, which rode in on an accusatory tone I didn’t particularly need or like, was her history with Bidderbells, a rescue dog she’d got after her divorce, the dog who had literally saved her life when she was so depressed all she could think about was killing herself every minute of every day and nothing on this earth seemed worth living for. Until she went to the shelter and saw that sweet thing with the big-eyed gaze and her furry front paws scrabbling there on the wire mesh till it was like to break her heart, etc.
“It’s not my fault. How was I to know? And I’m just as upset as you are.”
Very slowly she set the bottle back on the counter and put the empty glass beside it. I watched her face, the interplay of emotions there, as if something caught under her skin was trying to fight its way out.
I gave her a pleading look. “You know we can’t leave her alone in the apartment.” “But why? Why did you even go out? I thought you were supposed to be working—?”
I pinched my lips together and pointed out the window to the construction site. “The noise,” I said. “I couldn’t concentrate.”
I thought she was going to say something more then, something with a barb in it, overgenerous with blame, as if I were the criminal and not the loser with the tats who’d started all this in the first place, but she just looked past me and murmured a soft exclamation. “Jesus,” she said, and then she did fill her glass.
THE PHONE CALL IN THE NIGHT
Dinner was sandwiches washed down with wine and tap water, Leah far too agitated even to think about going out. We tried to watch an old movie on Netflix, one of those screwball comedies that feature people running in and out of rooms while mistaking each other for somebody else and hiding Jean Arthur in one closet or another, but neither of us could really get into it. For one thing, Leah kept pacing and fretting, the wineglass held out before her like a mood sensor. For another, without even realizing it, we both drank more than was good for us—three bottles in all. She kept saying, over and over, “The cop did say he’d call, right, if they heard anything?” and I kept correcting her with regard to the pronoun. “She,” I said. “I told you, it was a woman cop. Officer Mortenson.”
“Not Julie Mortenson?”
I was on the couch. Jean Arthur flickered by on the screen. “I don’t know. She didn’t give me a first name. Officer Mortenson, that was all.”
“Christ,” she said, flinging back the dregs of her wine. “That’s all I need. Of all people, Julie Mortenson—”
“What, you know her?”
Furious now, every twitch of her brain focused in her eyes, which were focused on me: “Know her? She’s a backstabber and a slut, is all. She bullied me on the volleyball team in high school till I had to quit and then turned around and stole my boyfriend senior year, who I’d been going with like from my sophomore year, Richie, Richie Lopez. If it’s the same Julie Mortenson, and how many could there be in a town this size?”
That was when the phone rang.
I won’t say it was like a bomb going off, because that’s a cliché, but it did stop the conversation dead in its tracks. I got up and answered it.
“This is Officer Mortenson. We haven’t yet located your vehicle, but we did find your dog.”
I said something like “Wow, great,” while mouthing the information to Leah, whose face froze in expectation.
“Apparently the suspect let her out on the off-ramp at Glen Annie Road and a witness saw what was happening and stopped for the dog, otherwise things could have been a lot worse.”
I was trying to process this information, picturing the dog mangled on the freeway but for the intercession of some dog-loving good Samaritan, when Officer Mortenson added, “The dog—Bidderbells, is that right, a basset mix?—she’s at the animal shelter on Turnpike and all you have to do is present ID to reclaim her.”
“But I can’t—I mean, I’ve had maybe a glass of wine with dinner? And I wouldn’t want to, you know, get behind the wheel—”
Officer Mortenson—she had a voice like honey heated on low in the microwave—just laughed. “I meant in the morning. They close at five weekdays. Open at eight, I think—you can check it out online.”
I would have felt relief but for the fact that Leah was glaring at me, all the tension and blame assigning of the past few hours livid in her face. I looked down at the rug. Cupped the phone to my mouth. “Okay,” I said. “Thank you so much. This is huge.” The conversation should have ended there, but the wine sat thick on my tongue and thicker in my brain. “Could I ask you something?” I said, lulled by the patient rhythm of her respiration on the other end of the line. “Is your first name Julie, by any chance?”
There was a pause that allowed me to feel just how far I’d stepped over the line here, attempting to personalize what was a purely formal, bureaucratic transaction, but then her voice came back to me, soft and almost sugared. “It’s Sarah,” she said, and broke the connection.
THE THIEF REVEALED
Leah was still furious with me in the morning. She’d hardly slept at all, she claimed, thinking of Bidderbells locked up in that cell with strays and pit bulls and she didn’t know what else. Did I realize that since Bidderbells had come into her life they’d never spent a night apart. Never?
I hadn’t realized it and I was sad to know it now. I kept my counsel, leery of provoking her, though my own sorrow was a new and festering thing that the loss of a car to a car thief couldn’t even begin to contain. Breakfast was a cold and hurried meal. We were out of the apartment by 7:30 because I had to drive Leah to work so I could use her car to go rescue the dog. Which I did. Promptly at eight. Here came the dog scrabbling down the linoleum hall on a leash gripped by a humorless woman who made me sign a form and pay a fine because Bidderbells’s license had lapsed, and then I was in the Honda and heading home to sit at my desk and work as best I could through the noise of the construction across the street. The dog ate lustily and looked no worse for wear, though one account had the thief flinging her out the door while the car was still moving.
The next call from Officer Mortenson came at half past two, when I was deep into my work—a proposal for expanding the acreage of the Escalera Vineyards on the south slope of the foothill property they were thinking of acquiring from a rancher—and didn’t at first hear the phone ringing. There was a distant sound, and it finally woke me from my trance on what might have been the fifth or sixth ring for all I knew. No matter. There was Sarah Mortenson’s soft, soft voice on the other end of the line, betraying not the least hint of impatience.
“Mr. Mackey, good news. We’ve located your golf clubs, or what we think are your clubs, which you’ll have to come down and identify, and we have the suspect in custody.”
I was still in the vineyards. I murmured something incoherent.
“Actually, he was already in custody, arrested early this morning on a drunk and disorderly, and the tats we ran yesterday came up bingo.”
I felt my mood elevate. “So you have my car?”
There was a pause. “Unfortunately, no. The suspect—he’s known to us, minor perp, long rap sheet—admits taking the car but claims he doesn’t remember what he did with it. The golf clubs he sold to two other suspects, who tried to fence them at Herlihy’s, out by the public course?”
I tend to get wrapped up in things, I admit it. Someone else might have taken this little violation, this theft of his late mother’s and grandfather’s property, in stride, but in that moment I couldn’t let it go. I wanted my car back. My fly rod. And I wanted to see some punishment meted out too. “What’s his name?” I asked. “The car thief? Mr. Tattoo?”
“We don’t disclose that information. Not at this stage of the investigation.”
“Come on,” I said. “Sarah. Look, I’m the victim here.”
Another pause, longer this time. I listened to her breathe, pictured her caramel eyes and the eyeliner she wore on duty to emphasize the depth of them. “Reginald Peter Skloot,” she said. “A.k.a. the Reg-Dog.”
“County” was the diminutive people intimate with the San Roque County Jail used in a familiar way, be they inmates, gang members, jailers or attorneys, and it was the temporary residence of the man who’d stolen my car and my girlfriend’s dog and was the only link to the whereabouts of the car and the things contained in its trunk. I’d been to County once previously, in the bad old drinking days before I met Leah, to bail out a buddy who’d spent the night there on a DUI after he’d dropped me off at the apartment because I’d had my own DUI in the past and wouldn’t get behind the wheel if I’d had more than three or four drinks. And I had. And did.
At any rate, Officer Mortenson—Sarah—had warned me to stay away from the suspect, the Reg-Dog, because my talking to him would only complicate things, might endanger me in the future and would serve no good purpose. So, naturally, and without even thinking twice about it, I dropped Leah off at work two days later and drove out to County for visiting hours, thinking maybe the Reg-Dog would take pity on me and tell me what he’d done with the car, especially since I’d discovered through a lawyer friend that the Reg-Dog had some money in the bank from his insurance settlement (motorcycle, gravel) and once he was convicted—and he would be, no question there—I could put a claim in and take that money away from him. Tit for tat. Of course, there was a second reason for my driving out there—to get a look at him, at this dirtbag who’d unthinkingly reached out and inflicted damage on a total stranger, me, who’d been put through the wringer and whose live-in girlfriend had stopped speaking to him. Period. Because she couldn’t trust him anymore. And why not? Because he had bad judgment. Fatally bad. As it was, she was reconsidering their whole relationship vis à vis what she was giving and what she was getting back and he—I—could only thank his lucky stars that Bidderbells hadn’t been physically abused, though she saw signs, painful signs, of what the mental toll had been. The dog was eating compulsively; she was skittish, peed secretly in the closet and had gummed her best pair of Liz Claiborne pumps till they were fit for nothing but the garbage.
That was what the Reg-Dog had inflicted on me and I wanted some of my own back—or if not that, just to look at him, to see the sleaze of him and the shame in his eyes.
I wasn’t nervous, or not particularly, but as I showed my ID at the desk and stepped through the metal detector, I was afraid that maybe someone had bailed him out or that he wouldn’t bother with seeing me, because what was in it for him, but my fears were misplaced. A guard showed me to a chair set before a window in a whole line of them, and there he was, the Reg-Dog, the thief, sitting right in front of me. He was about my age or maybe a couple years younger, with the kind of electric-blue eyes that can be so arresting on people with dark hair. He was in an orange prison jumpsuit, which covered up his tattoos and somehow even managed to seem elegant on him, and he wore his hair short but with long pointed sideburns like daggers.
It took him a minute, assessing me with those jumped-up eyes, then he leaned into the speaking grate in the window that separated us and said, “Don’t tell me you’re my lawyer?”
“No,” I said, and I tried to hold steady but had to look down finally. “I’m the victim.” “Victim? What are you talking about? Victim of what?”
I raised my eyes, fastened on that magnetic blue gaze that must have let him get away with a whole lifetime of petty and not-so-petty crime, and said, “Of you.” I gave it a beat to let that sink in. “That was my car you stole. With my girlfriend’s dog in it?”
He just blinked at me, no apology, no shame, no recognition even. I was wound up, and I couldn’t help delivering a little lecture about what he’d cost me, emotionally and financially too, and if I went into detail about Leah and Bidderbells and my grandfather’s fly rod, I’m sorry, but in a society like ours where everything is instant gratification and nobody even knows their neighbors, somebody’s got to take responsibility for their own actions. I didn’t like what he’d done to me, and I let him know it.
And here was where he surprised me. He heard me out, even nodding in agreement at one point. I’d expected he’d throw it right back at me, maybe threaten me, but he didn’t. He just bowed his head and murmured, “I’m sorry, man. I wasn’t thinking, you know?”
“Look, since my accident? It’s like I’m just not right in the head. And tell me that doesn’t sound lame because I know it does, but it’s the truth. You want to know something? I wasn’t even stoned or boozed up or anything when I saw your car there—and I swear I didn’t know the dog was in the backseat, or not at first anyway. My father, before he killed himself, used to have a car like that, or maybe not exactly, but you know what I mean. Boom, goes my brain. Time for a ride. And you’re right, man, I wasn’t thinking about you or whoever or what kind of damage I was doing because I just kind of went off—”
“So where’s the car?”
“Truthfully? I can’t remember.”
“What if I told you I have a lawyer friend who says I can take your bank account for damages—would that help you remember?”
“Oh, man, don’t do that to me. I got my own troubles. As you can imagine. But hey, I’m straight up with you here—I just don’t have any recollection because, well, you know, forgive me, but that change and dollar bills and all you had in the glove box? I started boozing it, I’m sorry. And then somebody had some oxy—”
“So you’re really not going to tell me?”
“Uh-uh. But I’ll tell you something else—that lady cop’s really got it for you.”
I do miss Leah, with that empty bottomless-pit kind of feeling that hits you first thing in the morning, the minute you open your eyes, and I miss Bidderbells too, because you’d have to be one cold individual to live with a dog for a whole year and not feel affection for her, even if she was the kind of animal who would gum the pillows and make her deposits on the kitchen floor so that you were all but compelled to take her to the library with you. In your car. Which just sits there in the shade waiting for somebody like Reginald Peter Skloot to come along and covet it with his burning blue-eyed gaze. But then, if it weren’t for that particular chain of events—and their aftermath—I might not have discovered just how intolerant, unfair and vindictive my live-in girlfriend really was. This is what’s called experience.
Did I ever get the car back? No. Will I ever see restitution from the Reg-Dog? That’s a question of time. Geologic time. I picture the glaciers rolling in again and my friend the lawyer (I’ll name him, Len Humphries) pulling a check out of the inner pocket of his zipped-up parka and the three of us, Len, the Reg-Dog and I, retiring to the nearest pub to tip back a celebratory glass.
The car I have now is a newer model, harder to steal, and pretty much unremarkable, the kind of thing nobody would really notice even if it did have its windows cracked and a dog in the backseat. I’d just parked it the other night in front of the apartment after a trip into the Santa Ynez Valley to meet with the Escalera people when a police cruiser pulled up at the curb behind me and Officer Mortenson swung open the door and stepped out onto the sidewalk, adjusting her duty belt as if she were wriggling into a girdle. I saw that her eyes were done up and that she’d changed her hair and maybe even lost a bit of weight, I couldn’t say. She said hi and then told me she was sorry to say there was nothing new to report about my car. “My guess?” she said. “They took it straight down to Tijuana. Or somebody chopped it.”
“You know, for parts? Like auto body shops. It’s a scam. And a shame too, a real shame.”
“I see you’ve still got your vehicle,” I said, nodding at the cruiser where it sat sleek at the curb. “Crown Victoria, isn’t it?”
She gave a laugh. “Yup. All mine. Except I have to share it with about six other officers.”
There was a silence, during which the little sounds of the street came percolating up, the buzz of a distant radio, a window slamming shut, snatches of conversation drifting by like aural smoke.
“You know, did I ever tell you what I do for a living?” I asked, following her gaze down the block to where a small cadre of bums was just settling down for the night in the alcove out front of the auto parts store. I waited till she came back to me and shook her head no.
It was a golden evening, the sun just cresting the line of buildings above us to illuminate the windows up and down the far side of the street. There was a faint breeze wafting up from the sea. Birds flared in the palms like copper ingots. “Here,” I said, digging a card out of my wallet and handing it to her. “That’s me. I’m in the wine business. And you know, I wouldn’t call myself a connoisseur, or maybe I would, but I was just thinking—”
I watched her turn the card over in her hand as if it were a piece of evidence, then smile up at me.
“What I mean is, I was just wondering, do you like wine?”